Current Affairs Politics

Why The Past Is A Guide To The Future

A copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic being read by Dr. Edward McWeeney, Dublin, Ireland, 24th April 1916
A copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic being read by Dr. Edward McWeeney, Dublin, Ireland, 24th April 1916

As an Irish Republican I believe in the historic right of the people of Ireland, as a whole or individually, to resist (where no other means exist) the British Colonial Occupation of our island-nation or any part of that nation through force of arms. However it is my firm belief that with such a right comes inescapable moral responsibilities and obligations. These beliefs are best summed up in the words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued by the Provisional Government on the 24th of April 1916:

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty…

…and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.”

Unfortunately that strict admonition was not always adhered to by those who claimed to serve the cause of Irish freedom in the years following the 1916 Revolution. In the last decade of the Northern War, as I came into adulthood, there were times when I was deeply ashamed to share the title of Republican with some of those who chose to engage in armed resistance to the oppressive remnant of the British Occupation in the north-east of our country but whose actions or beliefs were personally abhorrent to me (and to many others). Over the thirty years of the conflict many Irish Republicans have had their own moments of shame and each have their own individual tales of despair. While some think of the headline-grabbing events that still spark bitter debate my thoughts go instead to events of a smaller scale, which were nonetheless still dreadful to me and even more so to those directly affected by them. The name of Patsy Gillespie looms heavy in my mind.

The Irish writer and blogger Mick Fealty has a very important post over on the news and current affairs site Slugger O’Toole that should serve as a reminder of the grim and terrible realities of a historic war that was at times fought without restraint or morality. It should also remind those who appropriate to themselves the mantle of revolutionary Irish Republicanism that the excuse of “this is war” is no excuse at all. The end never justifies the means. They merely serve to corrupt and tarnish it. Where arguably other means now exist to resist and undermine the fading vestige of the British Colony on the island of Ireland those who chose the military path must give a greater justification for their actions than mere continuity or necessity. And if they remain determined to pursue resistance and liberation through armed force while rejecting the words and even more so the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation then they are simply a mirror-image of that they claim to oppose. Or worse.

9 comments on “Why The Past Is A Guide To The Future

  1. I too entered adulthood during the final decade of the conflict and i too was peturbed by some of the actions that the IRA carried out. I was also very proud of the outstanding bravery some volunteers displayed in other deeds. I have had the good fortune[some would say bad fortune] to meet some decent people in the republican movement and i also met some people who seemed to have a sinister side to them and hindsight has shown that these people were in the movement for self gain and nothing else. I would suspect any organisation, never mind a secret organisation, will attract dubious characters and it would be the responsibility of the leaders to flush out these questionable people in order for the good name of the said organisation to be maintained. I firmly suspect a lot of actions carried out by the IRA which ended in disaster i.e bad publicity due to civilian deaths are wholly the responsibility of the people who gave the go ahead, and that was the army council. Thomas Begley as a young man trusted his commander and so loyally obeyed an order which ended disastrously for the IRA. So too enniskillen. No republican would have deemed that operation anything but a disaster for the republican movement. Curiously Patsy Gillespie became a shameful victim in an area were the local IRA struggled to get a gun out of a dump most of the time, but yet somehow managed to pull off an attack that the more adept region of s.armagh failed to do or didnt want to do? Again the outcome was a PR disaster for the movement. And as with other incidents the smart man wouldve foretold the negative repercussions of allowing these attacks to go ahead. My question is, were some actions the IRA carried out, deliberately sabotaged from within the ranks in a’ wider picture’ scenario of shaming/discrediting the IRA? I believe the IRA acted with a fair bit of restraint during the latter years of the troubles and were fighting the enemy outside and inside the movement. If you judge the conflicts that britain/US/NATO are subliminally encouraging at the minute around the world, and the blatant atrocities that go on with their support e.g syria, then the IRA were pretty well decent. If the IRA had taken a leaf out of the NATO backed ‘syria rebels’ handbook they wouldnt, for example, have needed to phone and warn the public of the large bombs they had placed in london in the nineties.


    • I suspect my views on the Long War are similar to your own as are my thoughts on those who fought it. There were many brave and decent men and women in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army in the period from 1969 to 1998 (and to 2005) whose reputations are beyond dispute. There were many individual and collective acts of military resistance against the British Occupation Forces in the north-east of the country which to this day elicit my admiration and respect (as much as one can use those terms in the relation to a war and all the pain and suffering that goes with that – including the pain and suffering of enemy combatants).

      However I believe Irish Republicans of the revolutionary tradition must acknowledge their failures as well as their successes and do so without caveat. If others wish to play the “whataboutery” game let them do so. Republicans need to rise above that and in doing so provide leadership to others.

      I viewed Mick Fealty’s poignant original post in that light. The story of the Niedermayer family is simply too tragic for words, even if one privately questions the obvious political motivations of the journalist who wrote the article to which Mick references. It may be a calculated use of human tragedy to fuel the ongoing campaign of vilification against Irish Republicanism in Ireland by members of a Pro-British, Neo-Unionist media establishment but it happened and we must accept that and our role in it. However tangential.

      My views on “proxy-bombs” and suchlike echo your own to some extent. Though at times I strongly disagree with the analyses of Ed Moloney I suspect his suspicions in this area might have some truth to them.

      By no means could one compare the historic armed struggle of the Irish Republican Army with the terrorism of al-Qaeda and its off-shoots. And I agree with you again about the use of terrorism by nation-states when it suits them. To paraphrase Carl Sagan’s view: “Terrorists are the ones we disagree with, freedom-fighters are the ones we agree with and guerillas are the ones we haven’t made our minds up about yet”.

      Thanks for taking the time to Comment.


  2. EmmetRising_1803

    It’s just extraordinary to me as to what exactly the current band of militants (‘the IRA’, CIRA, OnH) and their politicial adherents (32CSM, RSF, etc.) can possibly hope to accomplish in this climate. I would put eirigi in another category, particularly with their deliberately – annoyingly even – vague position on armed actions and their cynical and uninspired ‘anti-Provo’ political platform. There’s an incredible moral cowardice looming over it all. That there’s no radical political programme to go alongside these pathetic armed actions (lets not count RSF trumping ‘Eire Nua’ at every turn), and the conditions not even existing for it, it can only result in an idealogicial dead end for much of the foreseeable future.

    If the ultimate outcome of conflict of the 1968 – 2005 period can only result in much of the mainstream republican movement going for newly established political institutions, what can possibly be the outcome of killing the odd member of the British security forces every now and then? And this is before I even mention how the savegery and pain of that conflict left a great damage on the collective psyche of the people living on this island, that WITHOUT any way to deal with the legacy of it… can only further offset the ultimate resolution of the national question in the long run?

    That is why I think a great contributing factor in why these ridiculous armed groupings endure (if Omagh didn’t stop it, what can?) – is all sides failed in trying to figure out how to deal with the incredibly bitter legacy of the conflict. All sides needed to dress it up as a victory for their own side at the expense of the others, and for this we get a peace, but a very imperfect peace.

    And in that vacumn, without that self-reflection on the part of many republicans, is where certain people in that community feel they do better. As maddening and self-destructive as that course will ultimately prove to be. … where is the great alternative political movement in the republican community? I refuse to believe there’s not an amazing potential for one with a grouping of certain individuals. One that fully rejects any form of armed actions in this climate, but can create an inspired and dynamic socialist-republican political platform for many to get behind. It’s not so much great thinkers in the mold of Connolly and Mellows we lack, but it’s the compulsion for these great thinkers to write, get up on that platform and speak out.

    I would agree with their above sentiment that I have a great regard for many of the ordinary Volunteers in that period, particularly in the late 60s and early 70s. Reading about Derry in the run up to Bloody Sunday you cannot help but feel admiration for these young men and women feeling they can do nothing else but join and defend their families and communities – be it PIRA, OIRA or some sort of civil defence. When you’re in the Bloody Sunday Museum, it’s hard not to be incredibly moved reading about Vol. Eamon Laffery, the young man who was the first of PIRA to be killed in Derry.

    Certain personalities for me loom large over their movement during this period. Mairead Farrell, is a personality I greatly admire the more I read and learn about her. She was far more pragmatic and deep-thinking then the sometimes over-fetishization of her iconography by members of the Provisional movement would suggest. That said, I can as a historian, question how wise an action the Gibraltar bombing would have been ultimately if it had succeeded – and wonder how on Earth the leadership assumed Farrell, McCann and Savage would made it there undetected. But I can understand why Farrell herself felt compelled to do it, reflecting the mindset of many in the movement during that time, and I can place in the context of that period of the conflict.

    Fantastic post, apologies for the rambling towards the end of my own.


    • I tend to agree. At this particular moment in Irish history, and where alternative methods exist, to engage in armed resistance to the continued British Occupation in Ireland, albeit now whittled down to the north-eastern part of our country, is clearly wrong.

      There are political, social, cultural, linguistic and judicial methods which Irish Republicans can use to undermine British rule in the North while making local regional government work and reaching out to those in the British Unionist minority willing to listen.

      No Republican political party or organisation has put forward a realistic vision of the future and one likely to appeal to more than the Republican core. To me a regional semi-autonomous North of Ireland within a reunited Ireland is the only political form likely to appeal to the largest mass of voters, north and south (this would include a regional legislature and executive, police service and courts, etc.). There is too much of a “northern identity” and a desire for regional representation to simply expect it to disappear. And that has been evident since the early 1800s. Better for Republicans to recognise and co-opt it as their own than allow it to become a block to future progress (after all de Valera and An Dáil offered this model of an All-Ireland republic to Unionists in 1921/22 and the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann makes provisions for it!).

      I had some hope for éirígí initially though now I am 50/50. I would certainly regard them more favourably than 32CSM. As for RSF – what a waste of people’s lives.

      Many armed actions by the Irish Republican Army during the Northern War simply defy all political – or military – logic. How the leadership could not see the counter-productive effects of some GHQ/AC-directed operations is beyond me. Those at the coalface became blind to the bigger reality. Of course one cannot escape the communal demands of a sort of “Defenderism” that made some attacks inevitable and degraded the overall effectiveness of the armed struggle. Of course there are many, many other reasons why certain units and Volunteers acted as they did and why the conflict evolved as it did that would take considerable space to list.

      For those of us born and raised outside of the Occupied North dealing with some northern Republican comrades was a challenge. And no doubt for them too. There was a mental border as well as a physical one. For me the Irish language and indigenous Irish culture was a way of bridging both. I found an older Irish identity, one pre-dating Partition or Plantation that created a common bond. That perhaps is the greatest failure of the (Provisional) Republican Movement. It remained a largely anglophone body and never developed as an Irish-speaking one where language was as much a weapon as an Armalite. Or even greater.

      Of course there are reasons for that. Not least the poor or non-existent teaching of Irish in northern-based schools in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (and still to some extent).

      The BBC, ITV, Ch4, Sky and the English language has done more to accustom some Irish people to British rule and favourable views of British rule or Britishness than any amount of Unionist politicking.

      Now it is me rambling 😉


  3. éirígí member

    Would the above poster care to explain the “anti-Provo platform” he attributes to éirígí

    I find that laughable. In the 3 years I’ve been in éirígí I think I’ve read a total of 3 statements which mention Sinn Féin. The vast vast majority of statements deal with trying to relate class politics and core republicanism to the reader and construct an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mind-set between the working-class and the Stormont and Leinster House establishments.


    • EmmetRising_1803

      From what I have seen of éirígí (including regularly reading your site and following your progress), and I did contemplate joining your party in it’s earlier days, was a remarkable potential for something I think very much lacks in the current republican community: A viable political alternative to Sinn Fein – that for good or ill, does comprise much republican support still.

      And you have answered my question in the second half of your last sentence, ‘construct an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mind-set between the working-class and the Stormont and Leinster House establishments’… which from the language and tone of your party’s statements are more really about contruscting a mindset between the galley of your anti-Provo support and the increasingly bourgeois Provos; While they may not be named per se in every statement, loudly demonstrating how different you are to Provisional Sinn Fein at every turn does seem to very much éirígí’s forte. Like it or not, the only way to really engage in the system is to take part in the (very flawed) institutions and engaging with ordinary Irish people, not sloganizing to a section of the republican community who will always agree with you anyway. As I said above, it is cynical and uninspired.

      As a sidenote, I do admire how your organization engage on the issue of treatment of political prisoners.


    • Though my personal choice of Republicanism runs towards centre-left social-democracy I was quite with impressed with éirígí when it first emerged. Definitely a breadth of fresh air in the often staid or single-minded world of Republican politics. Though I’m not sure if it has lived up to that initial promise, if you don’t mind me saying, I still regard it favourably enough and believe that it has some potential for those on the Left of Irish Republicanism. I would certainly wish it well and remain impressed by its grasp of contemporary culture, social media, etc.

      I think we all known the “troubles” of recent months experienced by party members but hopefully that is not an indicator of more fundamental troubles. I believe éirígí would be very foolish to go down certain roads when other and more productive ways are open to it.

      As I said I genuinely wish you guys well.


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